- Selected judges had their hand in the arrest of Christ.
- The judges coached the testimony of false witnesses.
- Members of the council attempted to force a confession before the trial.
- The assembly initiated the trial at night.
- The judges interrogated Christ and attempted to direct the accused to offer an admission or confession.
- The council rendered a verdict of guilty at night before the daytime session.
- The council declared both verdicts without the required legal evidence.
Monday, October 28, 2013
The Illegal Preliminary Hearings of Jesus Christ
I. Jewish law banned all criminal proceedings by night.
II. Hebrew law prohibited a lone judge or official from interrogating an accused person judicially or presiding as judge regarding the legal rights of the accused.
III. Private preliminary criminal hearings were explicitly prohibited by Jewish law.
IV. The striking of Jesus by the officer during the examination before Annas was both illegal and inhumane (John 18:22).
Jewish Trial Synopsis
The Jewish trial of Jesus Christ was unequivocally illegal, the court which condemned Him lacked jurisdiction to try a capital crime—blasphemy under Jewish law. The council had rendered itself unfit to judge the case since they were abundantly biased and unfair. Moreover, they failed to safeguard the rights of the accused.
In a case of condemnation, Hebrew law required that two sessions of the Sanhedrin must be held a day apart. In the case of a capital trial, the sentence could not be pronounced until the afternoon of the second day. The Hebrew trial of Jesus was thus illegal for it was concluded within one day, with the entire proceedings taking place the fourteenth of Nisan, the first lunar month of the Jewish year.
In pecuniary [money fines] cases a trial may end the same day it began. In capital cases acquittal [declaring innocent] may be pronounced the same day, but the pronouncing of sentence of death must be deferred until the following day in the hope that some argument may meanwhile be discovered in favor of the accused.
The trials were at night which made them illegal: "Let a capital offense be tried during the day, but suspend it at night." Additionally, the Hebrew trial and condemnation of Jesus was illegal because it was held on the day before the Seventh-day Sabbath as well as the day before a Jewish ceremonial holyday—Pesach (Passover): "They shall not judge on the eve of the Sabbath, or on that of any festival."
The permitting of the ill treatment of Jesus between the court hearings was illegal and immoral by Jewish law. Furthermore, the Jewish court trials of Jesus never furnished any adequate testimony of witnesses against Him. However, a sentence of condemnation was declared (see Deuteronomy 17:6, 19:15; Numbers 35:30).
Under Jewish law, the judge was bound by law to seek evidence only on behalf of the defendant. Likewise, to assure justice for the accused the arguments must begin on behalf of him. Only after one judge or more had spoken on his behalf was it permitted to have witnesses speak against the accused. These rules were abandoned in the trial of Christ.
The conviction of Jesus was illegal inasmuch as it was based on His own confession (Mark 14:61-64). The guilty verdict was based exclusively on the testimony of Jesus. "They answered and said. He is guilty of death" (Matthew 26:66). Jesus was queried with a direct question as to whether He was the Christ (Mashiach in Hebrew: Messiah). It would have been to His benefit if He remained silent, and He had the right to do such. But silence at this time would have been essentially a disavowal of His identity, duty, and burden.
Beyond that, the trial of Jesus was unlawful because it was built upon bribery. The judges of Jesus had bribed Judas with silver in order to show their guards where to arrest Him (Luke 22:3-6). The Law of Moses made bribery illegal (Exodus 23:1-8). Under Jewish law, this encompassed judges who provided bribes as well those who received them.
Jewish Law Violated
Jewish law had been violated in essential ways in the following important respects:
Throughout the whole course of that trial the rules of the Jewish law of procedure were grossly violated, and the accused was deprived of rights, belonging even to the meanest [lowliest] citizen. He was arrested in the night, bound as a malefactor, beaten before His arraignment, and struck in open court during the trial; He was tried on a feast day, and before sunrise; He was compelled to criminate Himself, and this, under an oath of solemn judicial adjuration; and He was sentenced on the same day of the conviction. In all these particulars the law was wholly disregarded.
The Roman Trial Under Pilate
Will You not speak to me? Do You not know that I have power to release You, and have power to crucify You? (John 19:10).
The Jewish authorities deemed it necessary to entreat the Roman civil establishment in applying the death sentence since the nation of Israel lost the power to apply the death penalty. They took the manacled Jesus and led Him to Pilate. He was taken to the judgment hall of the palace (Pretorium). The Jewish elders, deeply averse to defile themselves religiously by entering into a pagan house and thereby making themselves unclean for Passover (Pesach), stayed outside the Pretorium on the adjacent patio.
The Roman proceedings were conducted under a structure different from the Jewish Mishnahic system. Roman law was unsympathetic, stout, and aimed for justice. The autocratic and republican Rome focused on protecting the rights and freedoms of Roman citizens, even in a conquered province (see the Roman citizen Paul’s experience: Acts 16:35-39; 22:24-29; 25:10-12). The province of Judea had been almost entirely at the mercy of the Roman procurator (governor): Pilate. Pilate was responsible to the imperial crown alone—he held tremendous local power.
Pilate, with respect to the religiosity of the priests’ scruples against entering the palace, went to the patio at their entreaty. He asked them a legal question—an inquiry from the opening of a typical Roman trial: "What accusation do you bring against this man?” The Jewish leaders answered Pilate: “If He were not an evildoer, we would not have delivered Him up unto you" (John 18:29). Pilate replied, "Take Him yourselves, and judge Him according to your law.” The Jews said unto him, “It is not lawful for us to put any man to death" (John 18:31).
Recognizing that Pilate would not condemn Jesus on Roman law, "the Jewish leaders started to accuse Christ saying, ‘We found this man perverting our nation, and forbidding to give tribute to Caesar, and saying that He Himself is Christ a king’" (Luke 23:2). This was an indictment of three counts; an allegation comprising three charges. Pilate locked on one of the charges: treason against Rome. This was the highest offense one could commit under Roman rule.
Pilate’s Examination and Exoneration
The indicters leveled their accusations and then Pilate returned to the Pretorium to cross-examine Christ regarding the accusation of treason. All the Gospels record the same question asked Him by Pilate, "Are You the King of the Jews?" Jesus replied, "You say it." John tells us that Jesus also asked Pilate, “Are you speaking for yourself about this, or did others tell you this concerning Me?” (John 18:34). Christ went on to clarify that His kingdom was not of this world, but it was a spiritual realm. Pilate appeared to be mollified by His clarification and sat at his judgment seat and pronounced his judgment, "I find in Him no fault at all" (John 18:38).
According to the Roman law of the period, this ruling of acquittal should have ended the trial and freed Christ. Nonetheless, new rounds of accusations were pressed at the tribunal without a response from Christ. Pilate vacillated and sent Jesus to a new trial under Herod Antipas, the tetrarch of Galilee, who was then in Jerusalem for the Passover (Luke 23:7).
Herod and Christ
Herod mocks Jesus. … He “dressed Him in a gorgeous robe and sent Him back to Pilate” (23:11). The “brilliant” robe (sometimes a textual variant is accepted that makes the translation “robes of light”) reminds us of the flashing robes of Jesus at the mount of transfiguration. The transfiguration is a proleptic revelation of the future glory of the Son of Man, and Jesus has just told the Sanhedrin that He will one day come into that glory. Herod confirms Jesus’ prediction, giving Him the robe of exaltation in the midst of His humiliation.
Herod had yearned to see Jesus and "hoped to see some miracle done by Him,” and "questioned Him in many words; but He answered him nothing." The elders and priests, arrived at the King’s palace and "stood, vehemently accusing" Jesus (Luke 23:8-10). However, Herod was mindful that Pilate had already acquitted Christ; in which case a new trial by him would be unlawful. Herod declined the jurisdiction and sent Christ back to Pilate (but the soldiers mocked Christ during His incarceration at Herod’s).
Jesus the Son of God or Barabbas?
And they all cried out at once, saying, “Away with this Man, and release to us Barabbas”—who had been thrown into prison for a certain rebellion made in the city, and for murder. Pilate, therefore, wishing to release Jesus, again called out to them. But they shouted, saying, “Crucify Him, crucify Him!” Then he said to them the third time, “Why, what evil has He done? I have found no reason for death in Him. I will therefore chastise Him and let Him go.” But they were insistent, demanding with loud voices that He be crucified. And the voices of these men and of the chief priests prevailed (Luke 23:18-23).
Pilate recommenced his station on the judgment seat outside as Christ was brought in for another hearing. The legal charade that followed was completely absent of justice. Pilate tried again to secure the accord of the Jewish leaders to release Christ (Luke 23:13). Pilate noted that there was no legal proof given to attest to the charges leveled against Jesus. Additionally, he mentioned the annual tradition of releasing at Passover a prisoner designated by the people—a type of holiday gift to captive Israel. Pilate adjoined this to a scourging of Christ (perhaps Pilate was worried because of a missive he received from his wife regarding her nightmare she had about Christ. She warned Pilate to have “nothing to do with that righteous man" (Matthew 27:19). In the intervening time, the Jewish leaders were rigging the vote by placing their people in the crowd to demand that Barabbas (his name means “son of the father”) be released and not Christ (Matthew 27:20). When Pilate admonished them to free Christ (Son of the Father), the crowd shouted, "Away with this man, and release unto us Barabbas." Then regarding Jesus they cried, "Crucify Him, crucify Him." A third attempt by Pilate also failed and Barabbas was released (Luke 23:18-23).
Mathew Henry paints this picture from his commentary on Matthew 27:11-25:
Having no malice against Jesus, Pilate urged him to clear himself, and labored to get him discharged. The message from his wife was a warning. God has many ways of giving checks to sinners, in their sinful pursuits, and it is a great mercy to have such checks from Providence, from faithful friends, and from our own consciences. O do not this abominable thing which the Lord hates! ... Being overruled by the priests, the people made choice of Barabbas. Multitudes who choose the world, rather than God, for their ruler and portion, thus choose their own delusions. The Jews were so bent upon the death of Christ, that Pilate thought it would be dangerous to refuse. And this struggle shows the power of conscience even on the worst men. Yet all was so ordered to make it evident that Christ suffered for no fault of his own, but for the sins of his people. How vain for Pilate to expect to free himself from the guilt of the innocent blood of a righteous person, whom he was by his office bound to protect! The Jews' curse upon themselves has been awfully answered in the sufferings of their nation. None could bear the sin of others, except Him that had no sin of his own to answer for. And are we not all concerned? Is not Barabbas preferred to Jesus, when sinners reject salvation that they may retain their darling sins, which rob God of his glory, and murder their souls? The blood of Christ is now upon us for good, through mercy, by the Jews' rejection of it. O let us flee to it for refuge!9
Christ, supremely innocent, suffers while the malevolent Barabbas is released.
For more check out my new book "Killing Christ: Contesting Trendy Critics Regarding the Death and Resurrection of Jesus" HERE
Killing Christ is a valuable resource for students of the gospels, and a highly stimulating volume for all interested in Christian truth. The section on the harmony of the Gospel accounts, regarding the trials and crucifixion, alone makes this a valuable tool for apologetics. It will be hard to come away from this book without a feeling of having been enriched and challenged. This is a book that will be formative for average Christians and scholars as well as students and pastors—the author is clear, accessible and passionate.
Mike Robinson, author of dozens of books on apologetics, and the long-time pastor of Christ Covenant Church and instructor at CCBS.
1. "Be not a sole judge, for there is no sole judge but God, the One” (Mishnah). It was understood that only God was capable of judging without counsel.
2. Mishnah. Sanhedrin, section 8.
3. Mishnah. Sanhedrin, section 3.
4. Mishnah. Sanhedrin, section 4.
5. Mishnah. Sanhedrin, section 4. "If one witness contradicts another, the testimony is not accepted.”
6. This illegitimate sentence was predicted hundreds of years before the trial of Christ (Isaiah 59:16, 63:3-5).
7. Under the Law of Moses, if a chief priest deliberately rent his clothing, he was automatically disbarred as high priest and was to be put to death (Leviticus 10:6, 21:10). Caiaphas tore his clothing during the trial of Jesus.
8. Greenleaf, Simon (professor of law at Harvard University). The Testimony of the Evangelists Examined by the Rules of Evidence Administered in Courts of Justice.
9. Henry, Matthew. Mathew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible: Matthew.
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